Her husband was dead and she couldn’t cry.
Tess Casari clutched the phone. “Anna, it’s me. It’s over. David died two days ago.”
“Oh, Tess! I’m sorry. Where are you?”
“At my parents’. I needed to break the news and there was stuff I had to arrange—”
“Do you want me to come over? Or would you like to get away for a while? Giorgio is covering tonight’s event so I have the night off.” Giorgio Bissi was the manager of La Dolce Vita, the events planning company where both Anna and Tess worked—rather, where Tess had worked until two months ago.
“I’ll come to your place. It’s been rough going. But I don’t want to talk about it in front of Mom and Dad. You understand.”
“Of course.” Anna’s voice was a well of sympathy. “Come as quickly as you can. There haven’t been too many delays on the lines lately.”
Having grown up in the same neighborhood in Astoria as Tess, Anna knew to the minute how long the subway ride to Manhattan from Queens would be, coupled with a quick walk to the brownstone apartment on Sixty-Second between Second and First Avenues. That’s where Anna lived with her boyfriend, Lucas, an associate at a law firm who logged insanely long hours.
Forty-five minutes later, Tess was outside Anna’s building and shivering despite the unseasonably mild December evening. Distracted as she was, she’d left her parents’ house without thinking to put a coat on over her long sweater and leggings. She pressed the button for apartment number three and Anna’s voice came over the intercom.
“I’m here,” Tess said and was buzzed inside. She stepped into a small entry hall illuminated by a shiny brass chandelier and matching wall sconces. In the corner by the staircase, a Christmas tree was decorated with bright lights, red and gold balls, and a cascade of tinsel. The star perched on its highest branch listed a little to the left. A menorah stood in the center of a long side table. Two of its candles glowed.
The holiday season was upon them, Tess realized with detached surprise. Normally this was her favorite time of year, the hustle and bustle of the streets, the laughter of people gathering together, the delicious food, and, above all, the sense of hope and promise.
Her steps rang out as she climbed the winding marble staircase. Reaching the third floor, she found Anna standing in the door of her apartment. She rushed forward, enfolding Tess in a fierce hug.
“God, I’ve missed you. I’m really sorry about David. Here.” Anna took her hand as though Tess were a child. “Come into the living room. I’ve opened a bottle of wine and made us something to nibble on.”
Anna and Tess had been friends since junior high when they played, or rather made feeble attempts to play, on the same school basketball team. They’d become bosom buddies for the simple fact that neither of them could dribble or pass, let alone shoot an orange ball through a silly net suspended ridiculously high in the air. Why the other girls wanted to race up and down the court in those hideous uniforms was beyond their comprehension. Sister Louisa called them off the bench only when the team was losing so miserably it no longer mattered.
Anna’s family was huge, but the Vecchios always made room at the dinner table for Tess when her mom was either at church or visiting Christopher at the institution, and when her Dad was out drinking at Rosso’s until he was sufficiently anesthetized to come home.
Tess let Anna lead her into the living room with its vintage Kilim rug, burnt gold velvet sofa, and, the pièce de résistance, an ornate Murano chandelier that Anna had inherited from her grandmother. Its crystal teardrops twinkled above them, sharp-edged and fragile. Tess wondered whether the tears trapped inside her looked like that.
Releasing her hand, Anna said, “Sit. Eat. I’ll get the glasses and wine.”
A platter, artfully arranged with paper-thin slices of salami, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and mushroom caps filled with goat cheese, was centered on the mirrored coffee table. Tess knew each bite would be delicious. Like her mother and grandmother, Anna lived and breathed for the making and enjoying of food. She worked as the menu planner for La Dolce Vita but was already planning the next step in her career, fulfilling her dream to open a little trattoria where she could serve exactly what she wanted. She and Lucas had begun scouting real estate in Brooklyn.
For Anna’s peace of mind, Tess hoped she’d be able to swallow a mouthful of the appetizers in front of her.
She sank down on the sofa in the room she knew so well and felt a wave of disorientation wash over her. Everything, here and in the city, was familiar, yet she still felt oddly disconnected. Since receiving the phone call from her estranged husband, David Bradford, two months earlier—the first she’d heard from him in twice that long—telling her that he was in a hospital in Boston, and that the doctors needed to operate on his brain, Tess’s world had flown to pieces, as if swept up in a vicious twister. But rather than landing in a Technicolor Land of Oz, she’d been transplanted to the sterile confines of Mass General Hospital.
From Logan Airport she’d jumped into a taxi, arriving just as the nurses were preparing to take David down to pre-op. Her wild glance took in the older couple standing rigidly by the narrow bed—his parents, she realized—before settling on David, thinner and paler since the day he’d walked out on her but still looking very much like the man she’d fallen head over heels in love with. He’d raised his gaze to hers and offered a single word. “Sorry.”
Then he’d closed his eyes.
She’d barely registered the bitter truth that once again David was going to shut her out and leave her with no answers when the nurse and the aide, with practiced efficiency, transferred David from bed to gurney. Shooting her a quick look of sympathy, they wheeled him away.
And he was gone. That one “Sorry” was the last word he would ever say to her. When she next saw him, David lay in a coma, unresponsive to any stimuli.
The sound of Anna’s heels clicking on the parquet floor drew Tess away from her sad recollections. How grateful she was to her best friend for always being there when she needed someone. Especially now. She straightened and relaxed her knotted hands.
Carrying two wineglasses and an open bottle of Sangiovese, Anna sat down next to Tess on the sofa, poured the deep red wine into the glasses, and passed her one.
Tess accepted the wine gratefully. At least now she had something to fill her hands; she wouldn’t be able to glance down at the pale indentation encircling the second finger of her left hand. Unwilling to add yet another line of sadness to her mother’s face, Tess had continued to wear her wedding ring even after David, without a backward glance, had walked away from their marriage six months ago. She’d removed the ring only yesterday.
How soon would it be until the mark, too, was gone?
“Do you want to talk about it?” Mixed with Anna’s concern was a hint of eagerness.
Tess didn’t blame Anna for her curiosity. It was natural. Were they to switch places, she’d have had just as much trouble resisting the urge to know all the horrific but no less juicy details. And as Tess’s coworker, Anna had been given a front-row seat from the very beginning of Tess and David’s dazzlingly swift romance, the setting a swank cocktail party at a Fifth Avenue duplex with windows on Central Park, which La Dolce Vita had been hired to cater.
“It’s hard to know what to say,” Tess murmured. “Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been if we’d never worked that event.”
The cocktail party was intended to launch the political career of some mucky-muck, and the first floor of the duplex had been crammed with lavishly dressed socialites dripping in gold and diamonds, and Armani-suited power brokers who lunched at their midtown clubs. Tess had been passing hors d’ouevres among the guests when David stepped in front of her silver tray. Though the other men were just as impeccably attired as he was, David, with his curly blond hair and laughing eyes, was far better looking than many of them. Tess, however, would never have gone beyond acknowledging that he was an extremely attractive man.
It was David who’d appeared smitten, struck by the proverbial lightning bolt. After Tess had offered him a lobster puff, he’d ignored the other assembled guests, stationing himself at strategic points throughout the vast apartment to intercept her as she passed. Later he’d teased that it was her bow tie that had made him fall in love with her on the spot. Looking at it, he’d imagined himself in ten years’ time regaling their children with the tale of how he’d fallen in love with their mother because of her pink and purple polka-dotted bow tie.
That was David through and through: outrageous and totally unpredictable. Heartbreakingly so.
Tess had done her best to politely brush him off and concentrate on serving the other guests, but David had persisted in his attempt to talk to her with such a strangely endearing combination of humor and determination that she’d been charmed in spite of herself. By the end of the evening he’d convinced Tess to have dinner with him.
They’d eaten at a candlelit bistro that served a perfectly seasoned bouillabaisse and talked until the restaurant closed. She learned that he was a journalist and had been invited to the party because he was writing a profile of the political wannabe. David told her it was lucky he’d already gathered more than enough material for the article. Once he’d spotted Tess and her bow tie, he would have ignored Gandhi himself.
David had regaled her with amusing stories about his far-flung travels and the articles he’d written, but he’d also seemed interested in her, asking questions when she spoke about her background and where she’d grown up. He even got her to open up about a topic she rarely shared: the challenge her parents faced in trying to care for her severely autistic older brother, Christopher, and how devastating it had been for them when they could no longer keep him safe and were forced to place him in a private facility.
By now, of course, she wondered how much of David’s interest had been feigned or simply well-honed professional skill. But at the time she’d believed he truly cared. So when he asked her about La Dolce Vita, she’d revealed another aspect of herself, that she loved working at events planning because it gave her the opportunity to create a special, happy moment for people to remember. She needed to know she could make people smile and take away their cares—if only for a short while.
David had reached across the linen-covered table and laid his hand over hers and said that she’d given him a wonderful evening. He hoped it was the beginning of many such moments with her.
Maybe it was the lighting, the timbre of his voice, or the slow sweep of his thumb across the inside of her wrist, or maybe it was the earnestness of his expression when he’d spoken those words. She didn’t know. But she fell. And fell hard.
Because of David’s flexible schedule, they’d seen each other every day. Within a month he’d asked her to move into his SoHo loft. Six weeks after that he’d surprised her by coming to La Dolce Vita one afternoon when Anna and Tess and nine other employees were madly dashing about preparing for yet another high-octane party, this one a book launch for a celebrity’s tell-all memoir. In the middle of the kitchen, where Tess had been helping Anna top tiny Asian crab cakes with paper-thin slices of ginger, David had dropped onto bended knee and presented her with an emerald-cut diamond engagement ring. The rock had impressed even Anna. And Giorgio, who in the hours before big events made Mussolini look like a lackadaisical cream puff, decided the moment called for his best prosecco.
In hindsight, Tess recognized she should have resisted David’s entreaties or at least tried to slow down the supersonic speed of their relationship, but there’d been a magic to the courtship and she’d been enchanted. Clever and dashing, he’d been her very own Prince Charming, and Tess had believed herself the luckiest woman in the world.
But now he was gone and Tess remained bewildered, unable to sort truth from fiction, unable to comprehend why he’d bothered to pursue her in the first place. Why he’d bothered to tell her he loved her. Why the need for so much deceit . . .
She drew a breath. Next to her, Anna was looking at her sadly, helplessly, as if she, too, was remembering the string of events that brought David into Tess’s life. Okay, it was time to block out the endless loop of questions.
“The most important thing is that the doctors assured us that David didn’t suffer,” she said quietly.
“I know you told me that he’d had an aneurysm when they were trying to remove the tumor and then he slipped into a coma. So did he just . . . die?” Her friend’s voice was tentative. She didn’t know how to talk about what David and Tess had gone through. Anna wasn’t alone. There was so much Tess couldn’t talk about, not even with Anna.
“No. He contracted pneumonia.”
“Pneumonia? Gosh. That sounds so . . .” Anna trailed off awkwardly.
“Boring,” Tess supplied. “I know.” She nodded wearily. Boring was the antithesis of David’s character. “The doctors did everything they could, but the pneumonia took hold quickly. While he was in the coma, I sat beside him day after day, watching as the doctors and nurses came in and checked his vitals and performed their tests to measure any sign of responsiveness. During all that time I didn’t truly understand that the coma hadn’t simply robbed him of consciousness. It stole his strength, his ability to fight.”
“Well, he was better at fighting with words, wasn’t he?”
The comment was uncharitable, but Anna had seen how brutal David could be, how he used words the way some men used their fists. Once the marriage had started to deteriorate with the same dizzying speed with which it had been born, Tess would come over to Anna’s—she couldn’t burden her parents with the news that her very short marriage was already on the rocks, not when they’d suffered so much—to fall onto this very sofa, sobbing from the pain of David’s viciousness. Incensed, Anna would pace the room, cursing him with an eloquence that would have made a marine sergeant blush.
Doubtless regretting her previous remark, Anna said, “Still, I’m sorry. What a terrible way to go.”
“Yes.” Raising her glass, Tess drank deeply to banish the vision of the tubes inserted into David’s body and the wires attached elsewhere that had served to keep him in that terrible state for far too long. Although now painfully aware of how little she’d understood her husband, she was certain of one thing: David would have hated being dependent on those machines to keep his heart beating and his organs functioning . . . no matter what his parents wished to believe.
She had no sooner managed to push aside the image of David unmoving and unresponsive in his hospital bed when it was replaced by another one almost as distressing: of Edward Bradford turning to her minutes after the doctor had confirmed David’s death.
Grief had leached the color from Mr. Bradford’s patrician face but his blue eyes blazed, lit with pain and with rage. Removing an envelope from the inside pocket of his suit, he’d shoved it at her.
Uncomprehending, she’d stared at it and then up at the unforgiving lines of his face. “What’s this?”
She’d been on the receiving end of Edward Bradford’s disdain from the first day she met him and his wife, Hope, at the hospital, minutes after David had been transferred to pre-op. He never looked at her without making his contempt clear. Now his thin lips tightened as he sneered. “Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten. It’s the money I promised you. You’ve fulfilled the bargain. You stayed by my son’s side. Take it and go.”
The money. The absurd offer David’s father had made to pay her a million dollars if she stayed at the hospital until David was able to be discharged—an offer so preposterous she hadn’t taken it seriously.
Anna’s voice rescued her from the memory that filled her with biting shame. “It’s terrible to speak ill of the dead, but I’m not sure I can forgive David. How could he have married you without saying a word about the fact that he’d already suffered a brain tumor?”
If that had been the only secret David had kept from her. It now seemed as if everything about their marriage had been based on a lie. The biggest one being David’s saying he loved her.
That was what she got for believing in fairy tales, for believing for even a minute that a dashing, cosmopolitan journalist would fall in love at first sight with a working girl from Queens, sweep her off her feet, and propose marriage within the space of weeks. How could she have thought that she and David would make it, that they would enjoy a happy ever after?
Most likely it was because the David Bradford she’d known during those first weeks had been the most charming man she’d ever encountered. The most determinedly persuasive, too. It was only later, after she’d agreed to elope with him and they’d made their trip down to city hall, that, with the suddenness of a light being switched off, his charm had been replaced by a poison-tipped cruelty. Both extremes, his charm and his hostility, had been equally devastating.
Excerpted from Once Tempted by Laura Moore. Copyright © 2013 by Laura Moore. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.